Preventing Burnout

By David Spinka, LCSW

Most people pay attention to their mental health only when feeling emotionally dysregulated or depleted. In truth, mental health is so much more than diagnosis and going into a clinic for treatment. Ideally, it is a domain that it relevant for everyone to pay attention to before they need professional help. There are many ways to be proactive; to learn and practice skills and mindsets that will help prevent emotional overload from developing at the outset.

This is particularly important in workplace settings, where many people experience burnout. Prioritizing the emotional wellbeing of workplace teams leads to not only increased satisfaction and camaraderie, but more efficiency and productivity. Here are four strategies to increase emotional resilience and prevent emotional overload from building up in the first place. And if you’re already burning out, these same strategies can help you to get back on track.

1. Take care of your body

Emotional wellbeing begins with taking care of the body’s basic physical needs. The key trifecta of adequate sleep, nutrition and exercise is crucial to pay attention to. For many people, work commute time was significantly reduced in 2020, and we would be wise to utilize this additional time to engage in self-care. This could include getting an extra 30 minutes of sleep or going for a run or taking a brisk walk. Most of us are familiar with the basics of a healthy, moderate nutrition plan and taking some extra time to meal prep could be a great way to address this. The key here is to set small and specific targets that will generate momentum to keep attending to the body’s physical needs.

2. Be Mindful

Contrary to popular belief, multitasking is an inefficient way to tackle work assignments and can lead to burnout. Research shows that mindfully participating fully in one task at a time can increase both productivity and positive emotions. Fully immersing in any activity allows one to access a state of “flow” which is widely considered an optimal experience, incompatible with boredom and associated with enjoyment and a sense of control.  Additionally, taking mini breaks throughout the day (research shows that as little as 90 seconds can be effective) where we take a few moments to mindfully observe the world or ourselves by using any of our five senses increases a sense of wellbeing. If you find your mind wandering during these moments, (a likely scenario!) the key is to simply let critical judgments go by and gently refocus on the present moment (think about how many times and effortlessly you readjust your swiveling office chair!).

3. Build Mastery

Challenge yourself to grow and learn by increasing mastery in a specific topic area at work. The idea is to set small goals that gradually push you ever so slightly to increase your competency and expertise in a particular area. This will generate a sense of accomplishment that leads to a more positive self-concept and increases self-esteem.

3. Cope Ahead of Difficult Situations

Identify ahead of time which work situations are most likely to cause you stress. This could be a specific weekly meeting or person that tends to rub you the wrong way; or it could simply be the act of opening your computer to check your emails. The key here is to imagine the situation in your mind occurring as vividly as possible and to rehearse coping effectively. This will require you to come up with a plan of how to cope with the challenging situation. It may be necessary to utilize other skills such as a problem solving (see previous blog) or assertiveness skills that focus on learning how to achieve objectives while maintaining relationships and enhancing self-respect.  

In summation, we can reduce our vulnerability to negative emotional overload by accumulating positive emotions from the outset. Prioritizing taking care of our body’s physical needs, being mindfully present, building mastery and learning to cope ahead of time with challenging situations builds a sense of self-efficacy, self control and competency, resulting in increased emotional resilience and optimal mental health.

Please note: many of the above strategies are adapted from DBT skills. Please see previous blogs for more details.

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